Dylan didn’t realize how deeply boredom would set in when he first agreed to house-sit for his aunt over the summer while she spoke at boring conferences about creating a sustainable Earth. His aunt didn’t have cable, so TV was out, and the drive back to civilization involved heading up to Sarasota—that dreaded land of the slow-moving and sun-burned snowbirds, all on vacation from Michigan and Ohio—or even farther, forcing his 1989 LeBaron over the Sunshine Skyway. His car would always threaten to die halfway up. Sometimes it did conk out, forcing the same sleepy-eyed cop to drive four miles to the top of the bridge and make sure he wasn’t trying to jump into the bay. Still, he figured getting paid to feed Mr. Wonderful, his aunt’s silver Maine Coon, and water her plants was a better plan for his summer than the one he’d originally had of playing video games, masturbating—working on frequency and technique—and avoiding his father’s demands he do something with his life now that he’d graduated high school. Get a job, or maybe learn a vocation, something reliable, like carpentry. At least start filling out college applications for next year, but Dylan refused. Higher education was a scam, and besides, house-sitting was technically a job. “A temporary one,” his father said. Dylan shrugged, saying something permanent would probably come along soon.
He’d only been at his aunt’s beach house for a few weeks when things began washing up on the shore. Solid pieces of rubbery creatures with long tails twisted in seaweed, their bodies blackened by the sun. He read through the newspaper articles focusing on the case. His interest in it was a matter of survival, an attempt to keep his mind from crumbling under the monotony of his days. Time dragged in the beach house. Dylan felt like he’d been doing a minor variation of the same thing every day. He would go through the list of chores his aunt left for him, spending what felt like centuries scrubbing the toilet and cleaning the cat’s litterbox and shredding junk mail, but when he checked the clock, barely an hour had passed.
He didn’t actually care about the ocean or what it spit out. The sounds of water lapping the shore gave him nightmares, ones where tentacles fastened their suckers around his ankle and pulled hard enough to dislocate his knee. He’d struggle like a whale on dry land and dirty water would force its way down his throat. Then he’d be dragged to a disgusting lichen-infested cave and devoured piece by piece. So, actually being out there? No way. It was better for him to stay in his aunt’s beach house, enjoying her smoothie maker and heated bathroom floors.
The isolation of the beach house was doing something to him. At home, he had no problem holing up in his bedroom and avoiding people. But out here? He looked for any excuse to talk, suddenly craving interaction. He felt lonely, unfamiliar with having this much time on his hands and nothing to distract himself with. When his father called to make sure he hadn’t burned down the house or overdrawn the debit card his aunt had left for expenses, Dylan would try to stretch their conversations, asking him how his day had gone, if anything new was happening in town. His father would end the phone call by telling him he sounded like a woman, “Just yammering on and on. Shut up already, Jesus,” and hanging up.
Dylan had taken to talking to the mail carrier about how weird the whole beach situation was every time she came by. She’d hand him a stack of his aunt’s mail and make a disinterested noise when he greeted her. The cut of her postal shorts accentuated the thickness of her brown thighs, so Dylan always tried to find something to say to her. When she wouldn’t respond to his theories about the creatures baking into the sand, he’d brag about the appliances his aunt had, detailing the espresso maker, the wine cellar built into the side of a cabinet, inviting her inside to enjoy them, until finally, she said, “Look, I just deliver the mail. I don’t know anything about the beach, and I’m married. Happily.” After that, Dylan would stay inside, waiting for the soft clunking of her shoes down the wooden stairs until he’d go retrieve the mail.
A biologist identified the beached creatures as manatees that had gotten off-course in their attempts to swim to the Caribbean Sea. They had been shredded by ship propellers in the process, and the remains floated to shore. It was likely these pieces would continue appearing for months. Scavengers would take care of what washed up and the remains would sink to the Gulf’s floor in a few days. She blamed algal bloom and the increased usage of sonar as culprits, misleading these gentle giants. A tragedy for the animal kingdom, but no real mystery here, just another case of mankind’s strained relationship with nature. She called for South Florida to clean up its act, demanding safer waters immediately. Her article landed after a three-page spread detailing how the Tampa Bay Bolts were going to turn around their losing streak this season, and the scientist, much like the original case itself, was quickly forgotten about.
Dylan thought the truth was boring and science even worse. It was better when nobody knew what those things were. The mystery made reporters punch up their stories. They’d widen their guesses further and further, ending with the Tampa Bay Times dubbing the carcasses The South Florida Sirens, and creating a weekly column about hoaxes throughout history, called Historical Hoaxes. The editor must’ve loved alliteration. Dylan couldn’t understand why people had made such a big deal out of these fat manatees washing up in the first place. Dead stuff was on the beach all the time. A melting jellyfish here, a stinking crab’s body there. What was the difference? Why come all the way to the beach just to look at a piece of chewed up fish?
Word about the creatures had gotten out to a cluster of paranormal bloggers. They contacted Historical Hoaxes and claimed the scientist’s remarks were the work of a government conspiracy. A small group of men all in floral Tommy Bahama shirts made the pilgrimage to shore and stood near the water’s edge, collecting samples of sand and sea foam in labeled glass vials. Flyers were left in people’s mailboxes asking for help exposing this cover-up. They spoke to each other about electromagnetic frequencies and attempted interviews with homeowners asking if they’d seen men in black suits or any strange lights in the sky.
Dylan was the only person on the beach who opened the door to them. Most houses were either unused vacation homes or overpriced coffins for Midwestern snowbirds who could afford to spend the majority of their final years crisping under the searing Floridian sun. The man on the porch was sunburned. He wore small, rectangular sunglasses, and when he lifted them up to introduce himself, there were matching pale rectangles underneath. His Tommy Bahama shirt stuck to his skin in the humidity. Dylan could see splotches of sweat widening under the man’s arms. Even his handshake was damp.
“I’m Mike. Garrison. Mike Garrison. Do you have a few minutes to talk?” the man asked, shaking Dylan’s hand. Dylan stepped onto the porch, closing the door behind him as Mr. Wonderful began to sprint toward the frame. Mike ran a website dedicated to proving the existence of Atlantis. He listed his credentials: a Ph. D. in Parapsychology, several certificates from various academic institutes here in the U.S. and abroad, and a lifelong fascination with that which cannot be fully understood with traditional human thinking. The South Florida Sirens were a chance for him to progress his life’s work.
Mike rubbed the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. He asked if they could continue this conversation inside. “Away from prying eyes,” he said, swiveling his head around to scan the beach. Inside, the central air kicked on and a cool breeze from an unseen vent softly blew around Mike’s hair. Dylan flopped in an adjacent recliner, resting his feet on the table. Mike was the first person he’d seen in days. Originally, Dylan had thought the beach would be full of girls in tiny, neon bikinis, sunbathing and playing volleyball. Girls who would need sunscreen applied to the section between their shoulder blades they couldn’t reach, who would be grateful for how expertly he’d applied the lotion, and maybe have some incredibly flexible way to thank him. Instead, the beach had been mostly empty since he’d arrived. It was uncharacteristically cold for July, forcing tourists to stay in their hotel rooms. His father’s phone calls were the only constant. Dylan tried to get his friends to come out, promising unlimited alcohol, but he was the only one in the group who had a car, and they were all stuck making sundaes at Dairy Queen or restocking khakis in the mall’s department store.
“The government’s pouring all kinds of stuff into our water supply,” Mike said. “And the Atlanteans can’t handle those pollutants. Their population must be plummeting. It would explain why so many of them are beaching themselves.”
“How’d you find this stuff out?” Dylan asked.
The cat hopped onto the coffee table and folded into a tight circle and stared at Dylan. He had never been an animal person. He found them unnerving, how their eyes were too aware, too human-like. Mr. Wonderful looked like he knew everything and judged it all. Dylan could almost feel the weight of the cat’s gaze.
“What do you know about it? Let’s unearth the gaps in your knowledge.”
Dylan had never heard of Atlantis before, and Mike was more than happy to jump into the history. He talked about rising sea levels and increases of oil spills and how laws were quickly passed to restrict certain areas of the ocean from civilians. Dylan tried following it but realized he didn’t know what the guy was talking about.
“Plato wrote about it, you know. So it’s been recorded by humans,” Mike said.
“And the government’s just ignoring this stuff?”
Mike grinned. “They usually do. Exposing this would be bad for them. They don’t want the public to know just how far up in the chain of command this goes.”
He hummed the national anthem and did a mock salute. The redness in his face had amplified, even out of the sun. Little bubbles of spit gathered in the corners of his mouth. The more he spoke about Atlantis and the creatures on the beach and the New World Order, Dylan wondered if it was a mistake letting him in. He could hear the speech his aunt would give him, about how this world was filled with all kinds of freaks and weirdos. She’d list some statistic she’d heard from a Dateline special, one that was conveniently specific to him. Probably about how kidnapping victims were often young men fresh out of high school, all taken during the summer months, whose names started with the letter D. And then his father would jump in, calling him irresponsible and stupid. He had to think of some way to get this guy to leave.
Mr. Wonderful purred deeply from his perch on the coffee table. Dylan turned toward Mike with mock surprise.
“What time is it? I forgot I have to take the cat to the vet,” Dylan said. His voice sounded unconvincing, but Mike simply shrugged and slipped a business card into Dylan’s hand.
“Make sure you stay in touch,” he said. “And if you see those things, give me a call. That’s my cell and my house phone. And this is my email and then the site’s email. You know, I think some of the other guys have cards. I’ll get them to you. Just wait here.”
Dylan’s breath stuck in his throat. “I’ve really got to get going. That appointment’s soon and if I don’t show up, they charge a $200 fee.”
“That’s how they get you, all these hidden fees.” Mike shook his head. “Now that I think of it, everybody’s contact info’s on the site. You can get a hold of us. Don’t be a stranger!”
Dylan walked him to the door, with the cat following close behind, and watched Mike amble down the sand to another house.
Dylan stood at the stove, heating one of the dinners his aunt had made and frozen for him. At first, he’d resented her insinuation that he couldn’t cook for himself, but his stomach began turning at the thought of another TV dinner or grazing through the mounds of junk food he’d struggled over the Skyway to buy. The icy chunk of stew lazily slid around the sauce pot as it thawed, dropping little bits of corn or celery in its wake. A wail cracked through the air. He thought it was his tinnitus acting up and wiggled his pinkie around in his ears. Mr. Wonderful jumped on the counter and sniffed the pot. Dylan pointed to the floor.
“Wonderful, down. You, on the floor.”
The cat sat and licked a paw. He contemplated picking him up—even though he knew Mr. Wonderful was prone to clawing and biting—when another wail sounded, and the cat bounded to the bay window, his ears alert. Dylan shut off the stove and followed Mr. Wonderful. He peeked through the curtains, but there was nothing. He stepped onto the porch with a flashlight to get a better look.
He promised himself he’d run back into the house if things got too creepy, and kept his feet on the first porch step, but he couldn’t resist his own curiosity, the pull of something new happening for a change. A bird squawked in the night. The flashlight wobbled in his shaking hand. Dylan took shallow breaths. The beach was too dark to see more than the few shadows cast from the sliver of moon. He pointed the beam down the sand. Just a pelican picking at a trash bag. The bird circled up and back down, driving its beak into the black plastic. He shined the light on it. An arm shot up from the bag and captured one of the bird’s legs. It screeched, outstretched its wings and tried to bite. Dylan shouted, hoping that that would scare it away. He threw shells and driftwood at its back until it took off and flew to the pier at the other end of the beach. From the bag, a large fin flapped in the air and Dylan backed up to the porch.
His hand was on the doorknob when he heard a thick, wet sound, like someone crying. He knew it was stupid, he’d seen dozens of horror movies and screamed at every one of those on-screen teenagers to just run for their lives, but he thought that if he found something, maybe those paranormal guys would come back. Dylan could help lead the investigation this time. Or maybe he’d unearth the conspiracy himself and start his own group. He could take down a corrupt government and become a hero. What girl could say no to a guy like that? He walked back down the beach. Sand, still damp from the earlier high tide, coated the bottoms of his feet.
The body was tangled in fishing net. It was a woman. Her torso was smooth and long, like a shark’s, but it faded into a yellow fishtail that flapped wildly. She had patches of black hair past her shoulders and small, quick eyes the color of bone. Her mouth was bloodless; her lips faded into the rest of her face. Dylan’s head felt foggy and full. He rubbed his temples. The woman wailed. He stood close enough to see that the nylon was cutting into her tail. Drops of blood soaked into the sand, darkening it.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
She looked like she couldn’t catch her breath. He touched her skin; it was dry and cold. She grabbed his ankle. Her grip was light and her hand dropped back to the sand. He couldn’t believe it. Was this one of the Atlanteans? He expected them to be more substantial. She wasn’t much bigger than his father’s Doberman. Those paranormal guys would be begging for a chance to work with him. He’d be famous, have his name in history books. There’d be interviews and TV appearances and maybe even a book deal. People from all over the world would pay to see a South Florida Siren. An incoming thunderstorm rumbled across the water. She gasped at his feet. The outline of her ribs rose with each breath. He tried to pull off the netting from her, but it was too tightly knotted to come undone without something sharp.
He wanted to throw her over his shoulder and carry her to the house, but she was heavier than she looked, as if she was filled with rocks. He held her underneath her armpits and dragged her up the beach, his feet sinking into the sand with her added weight. Lightning streaked in the sky. He walked faster. She clawed at his hands. When they came inside, Mr. Wonderful hissed and ran underneath the couch. Her tail slapped weakly on the floor, leaving wet V shapes. He put her in the master bathtub. It was huge, at least twice the size of the one back home. He turned on the faucet. Water rushed over her body, covered her face. He got a bread knife from the kitchen and sawed through the nylon. It frayed and its blue strands floated in the water. She didn’t move much. He worried that she’d been stranded too long. The rope finally split into two, and he moved onto another section, sawing and pulling hard until his fingers went white under the pressure. He unraveled it from her tail and yanked it out of her wounds. He rubbed her fin, thinking it’d somehow help circulate her blood. The water seemed too hot and Dylan pulled the Cold knob and let it run until she was completely submerged.
He moved up his other hand over her body, telling himself she needed more circulation. She was electric under his fingers. He had the urge to climb into the tub. He shut off the water. Discomfort needled at him. He massaged farther down her body, alternating between using the fleshy pads of his fingertips and gently rocking his knuckles on her skin. She pushed him away when he began kneading the pale yellow boundary between tail and torso. He withdrew his hands like he’d been burned. She leaned against the wall of the tub, opening and closing her mouth like she was fitting her jaw back into place.
“Hungry?” he asked. He rubbed his stomach and mimed eating.
She squinted against the bathroom’s lights and shielded her eyes with her hands. The ends of her fingers looked raw like they’d been chewed on. Barnacles were fastened underneath her arms in large, pale clusters.
He stood. “I’ll see what’s in the kitchen.”
Dylan came back with a slice of pizza and held it close to her mouth. She took a bite and spit it into the tub. The hunk floated around her.
“Maybe something else, then,” he said.
He brought her tins of sardines, which she sniffed and nibbled. He emptied out the fridge into a laundry basket and scooted it into the bathroom. She turned away from the deli turkey slices, the artisanal chèvre, a plastic tub of quinoa, oxtail stew, and pickled figs. In the bottom of the basket was an old takeout container he’d been meaning to throw away, but had never actually managed to put in the trash. She snatched it, gnawed through the cardboard, and broke through to the food inside. The smell of spoiled sweet and sour chicken made him gag, but she licked the container clean. He sat cross-legged next to the tub and touched the top of her hand. Her skin was slimy and warm now, and she seemed perkier. She splashed her tail a little. He took that as a good sign.
“Can you talk?” he asked.
She flipped over onto her stomach and stretched. Fully extended, she barely touched each end of the tub. Her spine poked through her skin.
“That’s okay. Most people talk too much these days.”
She dipped her face into the water and drank deeply.
“You’ll stay here for a while. Get your strength up. And then I’ll get you back home,” he said and pointed to the window. Outside, the Gulf sloshed onto the beach. He wanted to wait until she was healthier to bring in Mike. No use in telling him about her if she wasn’t at her peak. She stared into his face. Her pupil-less gaze chilled him. He forced himself to break the eye contact, but coldness rolled in his belly. He pushed himself from the floor and turned off the lights, leaving only the orange glow of the hallway’s night light.
“I’ll just be in the other room,” he told her. “Holler in case you need something.”
She parted her lips and whistled. He was suddenly struck with the fear of leaving her alone. She could hit her head on the faucet and bleed out. What if she got scared in the middle of the night? How would he like being left alone in a strange new place? He brought in a blanket and some pillows and curled up next to her. She rested her head on the edge of the tub. They stared at each other through the darkness.
Dylan checked her tail as often as she’d let him. It was slowly scabbing over. He spent most of his time in the bathroom with her, talking at her about what he wanted to do with his life.
“Get out of Florida, that’s for sure. I was thinking about becoming a paranormal blogger. Maybe go back to school and get a degree in parapsychology. But you’re here now, so everything’s kind of different, I guess.”
She appeared to listen, her head cocked to the side, her eyes tracking each gesture he made. He’d wash her back with his aunt’s natural sponges and untangle pieces of seaweed from her hair. He had trained her to smile when he came into the bathroom, pulling at the corners of her mouth with his fingers, and feeding her pieces of fish when she’d keep it that way. Dylan had trekked into town and rented those DVDs designed to make babies smarter. He played them for her on his laptop, trying to teach her to speak. Nothing major, just a few words here and there, but she didn’t make much progress.
He spoke to her more and more. She never interrupted him. He liked that about her. When he was with her, he didn’t worry about embarrassing himself or trying to impress her. He could be however he wanted. He started to call her Jenny, after his mother. He had never met her, and when he’d asked his father about her, he’d only said she couldn’t handle the responsibilities of parenthood and left them. All he had of her was a grainy photograph from the day he was born. His mother in a hospital bed, looking straight into the camera while cradling his tiny body, her expression unreadable. On the back, the faded graphite read Jenny, ’89.
“Jenny,” he told her. “Do you like it?”
She mimicked the shapes his mouth made with her own, slipping her tongue across her front teeth on the second syllable of her new name. He was pleased to be able to teach her something. He slept in the bathroom next to her every night. She’d whistle low and he’d find her hand in the water and grip her webbed fingers. He constantly dreamed about her. She walked in all of them.
His father had had enough and pushed Dylan to do something with his summer, “Other than jerk off and sleep.” Apparently house-sitting didn’t cut it anymore. He needed to get out in the world, it wasn’t healthy for him to stay in that house all day. Maybe he could find a girlfriend, move out, and finally start a life. Dylan got a job with the beach’s Neighborhood Association picking up litter the tourists left behind. The weather had turned boiling and fleshy Northerners filled the shore. Pieces of the carcasses still washed up from time to time, but the seabirds had learned to snag whatever came to land. The job wasn’t amazing, just seven bucks an hour, but he got to keep whatever he found. Plus, it helped keep his dad off his back.
Dylan found it more difficult to leave the house every day. He would take frequent breaks to visit Jenny, bringing her dried sand dollars he’d found, or a carefully kidnapped crab, and watch her crack through its shell as it squirmed in her hands. He would leave to gather cigarette butts and crushed pop cans and see her through the bathroom window, her eyes focused on the water. Sometimes, she’d shriek and scratch at the glass, and he’d have to hit the pane with his trash picker to get her to stop. He knew her tail was nearly healed, that he could email Mike about finding her, but he ignored it. She’s probably too domesticated to be out in the ocean now, he thought. She needs me.
Jenny started escaping by flopping out of the tub and pulling herself across the hardwood toward the door. He would come home on one of his many impromptu work breaks and find her, dried out on the kitchen floor and breathing hard. He would put her back in the bathroom, saying, “Bad girl. Bad, bad girl.” Once, she caught her tail on something sharp trying to get out and tore a jagged line down her side. He was in the kitchen, plugging his nose as he spooned blobs of rotted fish into a bowl for her when he heard her cries. She clutched her fin as a dark ribbon of blood unspooled beneath her fingers. He stanched the cut with a dish towel and stuck bandages onto it, but they slid off of her scales. She was still too heavy for him to carry her, so he dragged her to the bathroom by her forearms, and deposited her back into the tub. He stayed with her. She shivered and licked the cut.
She rarely whistled anymore. Her fin was ragged like it had been cut into strips. Clumps of white fuzz grew on her skin. She would spend hours floating on her stomach, staring into the faucet. The gash on her tail didn’t seem to want to heal right. It kept opening and leaking blood into the water. He briefly considered taking her to the hospital. But what would he say? Here’s my fish-girlfriend, fix her up, would you? He climbed into the tub with her, telling himself it was to superglue her wound shut—an old trick his dad had taught him—but as soon as he went in the water, he tried kissing her, pushing his lips against hers, feeling that electric pulse of her again under his hands. He touched her everywhere, moaned against her mouth, their teeth clacking together with his urgency. Water splashed out of the tub as she twisted away from him. He held her face tight to his, inhaling the smell of the ocean that flowed from her.
Jenny shrieked into his mouth. Her tail hit the sides of the tub, leaving behind red splotches. She wrestled from his grip and launched herself out of the tub and onto the rug. She was too slow on the ground, and he pulled her back into the water. He reached for her again. She was ready for him this time and grabbed his hand and bit down, bruising it black. He slept in the guest room that night, convinced she just needed some space.
She was harder to settle down in the days after that. She would get into these moods and be completely impossible. She took every opportunity to bite him. He was covered with inflamed, oozing marks, but he couldn’t stay away from her, couldn’t stop himself from trying to touch her. When he slept next to her, she’d hum sounds he’d never heard her make before, and his arms would flare into goosebumps. Her hair broke off into chunks, leaving her bald. Jenny’s lips receded, exposing multiple rows of tiny pointed teeth. She stopped eating, even things Dylan knew she liked. She stayed in the tub’s corner, folding her tail under her when he would come in the room. He leaned on the edge of the tub. “You’re so hard to read these days, Jenny. What’s wrong?” She, of course, said nothing.
Dylan was blending fish heads for Jenny when the phone rang.
“Dylan! How’s my favorite nephew?” his aunt asked.
“I’m your only nephew,” he said.
“Listen, I have to cut the trip short. There was a mixer last night with a roast pig—a whole roast pig! Tiki torches, a live band—”
“Why are you cutting the trip short?”
She sighed. “I’m getting to it. Don’t interrupt. Like I was saying, last night, there was a mixer, and apparently, the pig wasn’t cooked right, and gave my last handful of speakers some virus, and now they’re all in the hospital, hooked to saline drips.”
“When are you coming back?”
“Of course, I didn’t eat any of the pork. They’re filthy animals, you know. Splash around in their own stink all day. Thank god for my scruples,” she said.
“So do you know when you’ll get here?” Dylan pushed the Pulse button. The fish spun to gray muck.
“Exactly? No. I’m in the middle of battling with the airline to get the date on my return ticket changed. I’d like to be back by next Friday at the latest. There’s an absolutely amazing speaker coming here in a few days to talk about the research he did on bio-luminescent deep sea marine life. Enough about me,” she paused and her voice went higher, “how’s my little itty-bitty-baby Mr. Wonderkins?”
He wasn’t entirely sure where the cat was. Mr. Wonderful had taken to hiding under furniture ever since Jenny had come. He’d only seen glimpses of the cat running from couch to love-seat, to jumping on top of the refrigerator and crouching behind the lined up cereal boxes. The cat avoided the master bathroom. Avoided that entire side of the house, actually. He forgot about Mr. Wonderful the majority of the time.
“Everything’s fine,” he told his aunt.
He heard Jenny splashing in the bathroom.
“Does he miss me?” she asked.
“Uh…yes. Yes. He misses you very much, Auntie.”
She squealed, “Tell him Mommy will be home soon!” She promised to keep him updated on her plans, asked Dylan to kiss Mr. Wonderful for her, and hung up before he could say goodbye.
Jenny was getting worse. Dylan researched fish diseases and tried to adjust the water conditions, adding a salt mix he ordered online, and dripping carefully measured doses of antibiotics to treat what he suspected was fin rot. He wasn’t sure if it was working, but Jenny began to sing to him when he’d bring her food. She’d make these beautiful, unintelligible noises. Jenny was eating again, but did it slowly, her expression pained. She became softer with him. Touching his face. Holding his hand. She even put her head on his shoulder. “I don’t want to take you back home,” he told her. “I don’t want you to go without me.”
He didn’t entirely know what he meant by that. She couldn’t live the rest of her life in his aunt’s bathroom. And he couldn’t live with Jenny. He wondered if she had a home, a family, or did she drift along the currents, forever following schools of fish and searching for the warmest stretches of water? He realized he didn’t know anything about her. But he was convinced of a connection between them, some spark of understanding. He thought she loved him in the best ways she could, but he wanted more. Dylan had saved her life, after all. He could’ve left her out there to get picked apart by gulls. Instead, he was going out of his way to make sure she was comfortable, safe. Didn’t his efforts deserve her affections?
Dylan sensed Jenny watching him all the time, even when he was out at work. This scared him, but he couldn’t pull away. He’d leave the house and find excuses to come back, convincing himself he’d left the oven on, or that he hadn’t changed Jenny’s water that morning, or that he’d forgotten his wallet. She was magnetic. Going to work quickly became impossible; he’d spend most of his shift crying, his eyes perpetually puffy from tears. He quit the trash job. It was taking too much time away from her. Something inside him felt severed when they were apart. He was the only person she could depend on. How could he just leave her? It’s not like he was saving the world throwing away other people’s used napkins, and besides, summer was winding down, the gaggle of tourists already slowing to a trickle. He could do a whole lot more here with Jenny than he could anywhere else.
He kept the blinds drawn and the front door wedged shut with a dining table chair. Time slipped into the background. He was only vaguely aware of the change between night and day. His eyes faintly registered the sunlight straining through the window shutters, the way darkness slipped in through cracks underneath the door. He researched houseboats and scuba licensing and how long humans could hold their breath underwater.
His aunt had fought the airline and won. She rescheduled her flight and was due back a full week earlier than Dylan had expected. He agreed to pick her up from the airport the next morning. She offered to let him stay through Thanksgiving at least. He could house-sit while she was at local events. The South Florida Sirens had raised quite the stir in the scientific community—ranging from anger and disbelief over the stupidity and inaccuracy of the name, to how to make the waters safer for all marine life—and universities across Florida had reached out to her asking if she could come and speak, so she was booked up for months.
He agreed, the idea sounded great and lied that he and Mr. Wonderful had really bonded these past few months and that he wasn’t sure if he was ready to let go of the relationship they had created. His aunt cooed at this and spoke at length on the research done about the health benefits of animal ownership. With her ride from the airport cemented and her running late for a last minute cocktail at the airport bar before getting on the plane, she ended the call.
He scrambled to come up with a plan. He considered calling Mike, asking him for help, but they’d just take Jenny, keep her for themselves. She’d end up vivisected by some scientist who didn’t care about her, just about whatever award they’d get for figuring out what made her tick. No, involving Mike was a mistake; he’d be signing her death warrant if he did that. He didn’t need anybody else around her. He could take care of her all by himself. As long as they had each other, they’d be fine. If he could move her somewhere else, they could be together. Maybe go to a hotel. He could keep her in the tub there until he thought of something else. Space would be cramped, but they’d work around it. Every relationship has its problems, he told himself. Nothing’s perfect.
He found a plastic moving tub in his aunt’s closet and pushed it out to the backyard. He fought with the garden hose reel and managed to get the tip of the metal nozzle to the lip of the tub. A spider web stretched taut over the handle of the spigot. Fat drops of water dotted the web. He hesitated. A mini pep talk welled in his head. Every second he spent whining about this bug lowered the chance of his happy future with Jenny. A future he had worked hard for. The sun burned low in the sky, ready to dip past the horizon. This would all be harder to do in the dark. He squeezed his eyes and plunged his hand into the web. It stuck to his palm. He twisted the handle and the hose swelled with water. Dylan rinsed off his hand and filled the tub. He added the salt mix, the fin rot drops and fastened the lid.
He stuffed plastic containers with food for her and packed a bag with his clothes, some energy bars, and the leftover salt mix. Dylan soaked a towel in the sink. He was going to wrap her up in it, to keep her moist while she was out of the water, and to try to hide her tail. Jenny sang in the bathroom. The sound tugged him to her. Her skin was wrinkled and her eyes bulged. She looked so fragile and out of place all of a sudden. He thought she’d feel better if he put her in the ocean for a while before they left. The pH of the water here was all wrong for her, giving her those mood swings, curbing her appetite. The beach would be good for her. He wrapped the towel around her and drained the tub. Dylan picked her up, his knees threatening to give out, and she clung to him, her arms firmly hooked around his neck as they left the house.
The water was choppy. He worried she was too weak to fend off the current. She became more agitated the closer they got to the Gulf. He carried her to where the water licked the shore and sat her down on the wet beach. She wiggled farther down the sand until she was deep enough to swim. Jenny looked at him over her shoulder. She gave him the smile he had taught her. The sun was gone, leaving behind a purple skin over the sky. She whistled to him. She ducked underwater and swam ahead, popping up farther out in the sea. A wave rolled over her head, obscuring her, and when she didn’t come back up, he stepped into the water to look for her. The white foam gripped his ankles.
He walked to where he’d last seen her. Water was up to his armpits and his toes nested in the sandy floor. He kicked his legs, called her name, told her they’d have to get going soon. More waves rushed the beach, enveloping his head, and depositing grit into his open mouth. When the water cleared, Jenny was biting into the quivering globe of a jellyfish, its glassy tentacles tangled around her hands.
He waded toward her, afraid of the water’s tug, but more of the way Jenny’s head moved as she pushed the last bits of jellyfish into her mouth. She didn’t swim away when he reached her. She seemed to welcome him. They swirled around each other, weightless. Her face was rosier. Her hair had grown back, an oil spill down her shoulders. He tried to run his fingers through it but kept getting caught on pieces of seaweed. He cut his thumb on a slice of shell behind her ear. She sucked his finger into her mouth and licked off the blood. Shadows drew across her face, hiding her eyes. Something was different about her. He could tell. Her face had taken on unfamiliar angles, catching moonlight in a strange way, highlighting new hollows in her cheeks. She kissed the base of his throat. Her lips were ice against his neck. Shivers dripped down his back. She bit at the little section of skin above his Adam’s apple. He ran his hands over her, but her skin felt sharp, and he was afraid to touch her.
The water gently bumped them. Her hands gripped his sides. Dylan’s brain lit up with the plan to get to the hotel, how they needed to get back to shore. He could still see the beach, the occasional small dots of light from the houses along the water. The moon hung in the sky like one of her pupil-less eyes. They drifted deeper out into the water. He motioned toward the beach, said that they had to go back, let him put her in his car, that they could be happy together. He told her he loved her, reminded her of all he’d done for her, how it was their destiny to be together. Jenny didn’t seem to register his words.
Her tail wrapped around his left ankle and pulled. The bones in his knee slipped free of each other and he screamed. She sang over him, her voice fragmented, coming out in throaty shrieks. She dug into his arms, securing him. Her hair snaked into his mouth, gagging him, tightening over his throat. He splashed, trying to get help. She pulled him past the surface so quickly he barely grabbed a last breath and floated down with her. She had a voice underwater, a real voice, and she was whole again. He tried to wrench himself from her grip, but she coiled around him, crushing his ribs, forcing squeaks of air from his lungs. He watched the water distort the moon above them, turning it to a broken egg yolk as she dragged him deeper.